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Preparing for a transition

December 1, 2008
by Brion P. McAlarney
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Seabrook House takes a proactive approach to leadership succession

When Denise Adams took over as vice president of human resources at Seabrook House in southern New Jersey about 18 months ago, the nonprofit treatment organization's board of directors immediately presented her with a major initiative that many organizations tend to ignore or place on the back burner: succession planning.

“One of my objectives was to define and outline a succession plan because this was something the board knew it wanted to have in place—it wanted to do something proactive rather than reactive,” says Adams.

Like many of its 12-Step-oriented brethren in the addiction treatment community, Seabrook House started as a family business. Current president Ed Diehl worked his way up the ladder of the center his parents founded. But like many current incarnations of organizations that started as family enterprises, Seabrook House understands that the family succession model no longer suffices as a business model. A more structured plan of succession to lead the organization into meeting its future challenges is imperative.

Shorter-term needs

Step one for Adams involved researching and creating an emergency succession plan for the president position. The research involved reaching out to professional colleagues at the Society for Human Resource Management, as well as to HR executives from other treatment facilities. “What I found was that they were probably in a similar situation—they didn't have anything in place for their organization,” says Adams.

She quickly discovered that succession planning for an addiction treatment organization carried some unique characteristics. “What I found to be unique was dealing with a family business, and an organization that is so vision- and mission-driven,” says Adams. “We're a 12-Step program here, so one thing you need to consider is to make sure that the individuals we're looking at truly believe in the 12-Step philosophy. The CEO position, and other top positions, have to champion our business and have to champion our philosophy.”

With these guiding principles in mind, Seabrook officials crafted an emergency succession plan that was quite inclusive, bringing to bear the input of many individuals. The plan outlines immediate steps to be taken in the event of an unplanned absence by the president, in an effort to be implemented by the board of directors.

The Seabrook president's immediate short-term successor would be the vice president of business operations, who would serve as acting president. There are also two backups if the vice president of business operations is unable to serve: the first being the vice president of treatment services and the second being the vice president of human resources (the title Adams presently holds).

To plan for these transitions, the president is instructed to develop cross-training for each of the titled individuals in the priority functions of the president position.

Under the plan, the interim president would receive a temporary salary increase to reflect increased responsibilities. The board of directors would provide oversight and support to the acting president, and would act in conjunction with that person to communicate the temporary management structure to employees and key external supporters, including government and other contract partners, civic leaders, and major donors.

For temporary absences of a somewhat longer duration, the board of directors and acting president would consider backfilling the vacant management position left behind by the acting president, according to Seabrook's plan.

In the event of a permanent unplanned absence, the board of directors would appoint a transition and search committee, working with the vice president of human resources to implement a transition to a new permanent president. This committee would be quite diverse in its membership and not limited to Seabrook's own management structure. Besides including named members of the center's board of directors, the committee would include two presidents of other treatment centers, as well as the president of a trade association in the field.

“We wanted to include them because they knew our business, their business model followed ours, and they knew our philosophy,” says Adams. “We knew they'd be able to help us. You wouldn't find that in another business. You wouldn't have the CEO of Pepsi saying to the CEO of another beverage company, ‘Come help us find somebody.’”

The emergency plan received approval from Seabrook's board of directors. Adams credits the board with initiating the process, and current president Diehl with being very involved. Drafting the plan long before it is actually needed was beneficial, Adams says. “You want to develop these long before [they're needed], so it just becomes an action in the end—there's not a lot of emotion surrounding it,” she says.

When Seabrook's plan was completed, Adams shared it with other treatment organizations, “to help them along—so that's something again that's different [from other industries],” she says.

Long-term succession plan

Seabrook also has been working on developing a long-term succession plan that involves mentoring, training, and development; redefining administrative performance criteria; and identifying individuals who have the emotional intelligence and competencies to advance to executive leadership in the organization.

“We've identified the positions that we think need successors defined and then we look in-house to see if there's anyone who could fill those roles,” says Adams. While Seabrook doesn't have a defined time period for establishing successors for most of these positions, there is an overall goal of continuous improvement on this initiative. Mentoring already has started for some positions.

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